I see history repeating itself, in a way that could be tragic for the huge generation of Americans that grew up with inflation.
Their elders grew up with deflation and Depression. The lessons they drew from that searing experience shaped their attitudes for a lifetime. Even today, I know older people who pay cash for everything, carry no debt, pay off their mortgages as quickly as possible, contribute regularly to savings, and keep their funds only in insured accounts.
And although right for the 1930s, their strategy failed them in the inflationary 1970s. By refusing to borrow, they slowed the rise in their own standard of living; their savings lost value, and many of them never learned to relax and enjoy their income.
The inflation generation, on the other hand, suffers from this problem in reverse. Their experience taught them to spend money before prices go up, to go deeply into debt, to refinance their houses and to speculate in real estate.
But today, their thinking may be just as out of date as was their parents' thinking was 20 years ago. Disinflation is hard upon us, yet a majority of younger Americans still are behaving as though all their debts will magically float away. Spending is up, personal borrowing is up, savings are down and real estate still seems to be king.
It may prove impossible to change the attitudes of any generation that has suffered as substantial a shock as super-inflation. But in today's disinflationary environment, some 50-year-old Depression strategies are once again making a lot of sense:
*Saving Money: Lower inflation means lower interest rates, and where you stand on this issue depends on where you sit. If you're saving for the future, you're in splendid shape; I can't remember when it last paid so much to save. Insured 2.5-year bank and S&L certificates pay an average of 8.9 percent -- 5.5 percentage points higher than the current 3.4 percent inflation rate. Falling interest rates don't matter as long as you're piling up real purchasing power, after inflation and after taxes.
But it's another matter if you're living on interest from your savings. Four years ago, you could easily have earned at a rate of $1,600 a year for every $10,000 kept in ready savings. After inflation, that came to $600 in real money. Today, however, your annualized earnings would have dropped to as little as $700, worth only around $370 after inflation, so your purchasing power is going down.
*Borrowing money: One recurring piece of doubtful advice I often hear from financial planners is that it's still smart to borrow up to the eyeballs, to buy life insurance, tax shelters and other investments. They say you'll do better after taxes.
But under disinflation, bigger debts are the last thing you want. You are no longer paying off your loans in cheaper dollars, because the burden of real interest rates has grown so heavy. And with the economy growing so slowly, your job security isn't what it used to be. Generally speaking, the less debt you carry, the safer you'll be.
*Investing: This country last saw a period of prolonged disinflation during the 1920s, in the glory years before 1929. With the stock market hitting record highs, today's speculators are dreaming of another brilliant peak. It's not impossible, if the economy gets a second wind. But in the remote chance that disinflation might lead to financial disruption, the lesson from the '30s is this: Keep at least half of your money in high-interest government securities or insured deposits. They've been performing even better than stocks.
Real estate, on the other hand, is a poor choice during disinflation, unless you have some reason to know that you've really bought cheap.
*Earning money: Disinflation has come as an awful shock to workers who had learned to love raises of 10 percent a year. Average wage gains ran in the area of 4 percent last year, just about even with inflation. Professional and technical workers did better, while union members did a lot worse. And despite the continuing economic recovery, the pace of layoffs and early retirements has been picking up.
The best income gains today are going to top corporate management; to employes winning big promotions; to investors who earn dividends and fat capital gains; and to savers with good interest income. If you're on a job plateau, you're not likely to see real income gains in the years ahead. So your best hope for raising your purchasing power is to save and invest.